The use of Terra-cotta cladding and its remarkable sustainable results

The use of Terra-cotta cladding and its remarkable sustainable results

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Terra-cotta or “baked earth”, in accordance to the US General Services Administration, is typically a fired clay mostly used today in historical preservation as it was widely a typical masonry construction material (c. 1868).  Similar to concrete, terra-cotta can be moulded virtually into any shape, it is fireproof and strong, although not as strong as a concrete mix in its resistance to compression as it is a delicate composition if not well installed or manufactured.

Natural History Museum_London

Natural History Museum- London. Image by Flickr user: alanhitchcock49

In reference to its historical precedence and applications, the book “Twentieth-Century Building Materials: History and Conservation” by Deborah Slaton and Harry J. Hunderman, describe the use a origins of terra-cotta and its developments onwards to its mass production:

“Terra cotta (“baked earth”) is a fired clay product, usually glazed, used in construction as a structural component, fireproofing, or architectural cladding. For centuries, artisans have used clay’s plasticity to create formed decorative objects. Ceramic veneer, a specific type of terra cotta, is a thin, machine-made pressed-clay product that is also usually glazed. Ceramic veneer elements, which were first produced in the 1930’s, are usually simple in shape, although a variety of textures and finishes are manufactured.”

The authors incorporate the fact that the production of Architectural Terra cotta, in USA began in the late 1860’s and clearly explains its manufacturing process being hand-craft or hand-formed and one that has “not changed significantly over the past several centuries”.

How is Terra cotta made?

Terra cotta is made of a combination of clay and remnants of previously fired clay and water, mixed together once again to form a new mixture for molding.

How was Terra cotta applied originally?

Terra cotta was typically applied as an ornament in Architectural façades around on many buildings in the United States around Late 1800’s. The cladding application of terra cotta panels took rise early in the 1900’s on skeleton framed buildings throughout the nation. According to records depicted on aforementioned book, the Great Depression had a great deal to do with the reduction in use of terra cotta, “after World War II ceramic veneer was often used instead of terra cotta in new construction. Ceramic veneer’s manufacturing process was more highly mechanized and less labor intensive, and therefore veneer was less costly than terra cotta. Moreover, modern façade design no longer required terra cotta’s ornamental capabilities. Masonry cladding took a back seat to new glass and metal panels in high-rise curtain wall construction”.

What is the difference between terra cotta and ceramic panels?

Terra cotta panels or tiles are manufactured with natural and raw clay without other chemicals, a possible reason for its high ability for absorption of water. It is high performative but very brittle.

Ceramic, on the other hand, is also made of clay, but in order to increase its hardness, quartz sand and other materials, have been added to the mixture. For this, ceramic materials have a very low water absorption, making it easy to work on and low cost, compared to terra cotta’s high cost operation and time consumption.

Which products are comprised of terra-cotta today?


Terra Cotta Façade by NBK and Hunter Douglas Contract

Many companies that fabricate wall cladding and aluminum composite metal panels, are also introducing terra-cotta to their list. The company Hunter Douglas Contract, provides both with a variety of stiles of “baked earth” claddings, louvers and fins. The next Issuu downloadable document includes the Architectural Terra Cotta edition of their brand explaining more in depth of the amazing capabilities offered by Terra Cotta to your building and the environment.

Are there any other innovations regarding the use of Terra Cotta in Architecture?

Modern Buddhist Temple by Woods Bagot Studio and Axolotl

Modern Buddhist Temple by Woods Bagot Studio and Axolotl, Image source:

Using Terra Cotta naturally or as traditionally installed and manufactured, is costly and time consuming as explained earlier, but technology under the lamp of a materials scientist, demonstrates that we can go farther than we thought with materials. The Aussie company Axolotl, has invented a new method of using terra cotta with cost reductions,  practicality and without the firing of the clay which consequently reduces carbon emissions. It is comprised of a simple coating with the application over many materials such as aluminum, which can be shop-manufactured and easily coated with the clay material to provide this fabulous look and feel. Take a look at the Issuu catalog about Axolotl’s terra cotta products for your download convenience.


Slaton Deborah, Hunderman Harry J, “Twentieth-Century Building Materials: History and Conservation”, 2014 edition by Thomas C. Jester, Getty Conservation Institute. Los Angeles. (Chapter: Terra-Cotta, P.127)

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Mabelle Plasencia

Founder and Editor at INmatteria©
• Architect | LEED AP BD+C, with an intense passion for materiality, innovation, technology and science. • Arquitecta | LEED AP BD+C apasionada por la materialidad, innovación, tecnología y ciencia.